If identifying your favorite food is determined by how much time you fritter away in search of it, then falooda must be my favorite food. Inconvenient to make, difficult to find, it plays second fiddle to most every other Indian dessert. Yet the hunt for this fragrant pink ambrosia, and the thrill of finally finding (and promptly devouring it), is an unparalleled satisfaction.
Persian in origin, kulfi falooda (also spelled faluda or faloodeh) looks like something an indulgent king might drink. The closest stateside comparison I can think of is an ice cream sundae, a woefully inadequate approximation of what is maybe the most psychedelic dessert on Earth. There are several variations throughout South Asia, each partial to its own regional idiosyncrasies, but the one I know best is served as a drink made of sweet basil seeds (unlike chia, these must be consumed after being soaked in water), boiled vermicelli noodles, rose water, and pistachio kulfi (or ice cream in a bind).
To eat falooda is to engage all of your senses and possibly alienate your non-desi friends. The first time I ate it was with my mother in a now-closed bazaar in Artesia’s little India — far, but not prohibitively so, from our home in West Hollywood. It had the gooey consistency of the sticky Rooh Afza bottle on our kitchen counter and the garish lavender-pink hue of My Little Pony’s mane. It looked otherworldly. The gelatinous basil beads reminded me of bubble tea and the vermicelli noodles thrashing around made the whole thing seem vaguely aquatic. In Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie put it well, using an adjective as over-the-top as the dessert it describes: the sign at the cafe Saleem’s mother visits reads “FUNTABULOUS FALOODA” while filmi music blares from the radio.
I’m not sure why it’s such a Herculean task to find falooda in America. On trips to India, it was one of the few foods I could eat that didn’t expose the anemic willpower of my westernized immune system. In college, I would forsake sunny afternoons to type inelegant searches into Yelp (“falooda kulfi East Bay good”) in hopes of tracking down a restaurant that supplied the creamy elixir. Sometimes I wonder if I was duped by the simple economics of supply and demand: did scarcity made me covet falooda so much?
Compared to other desi desserts, it strikes me as the most versatile of the bunch. Though it is essentially a summer street food (of the same ilk as chaat), it can be gourmet (topped with decadent garnishes like cardamom pods and strands of saffron) for birthdays and weddings. Finding falooda at all in the US — let alone good falooda — is a rare pleasure. A rule of thumb: aim low and cap your budget at $6. Pay any more, and you’re getting cheated.
These places will help you get started on your adventures in falooda:
1. Surati Farsan
11814 E. 186th Street
Artesia, CA 90701
Rose flavored milk containing ice cream
795 Newark Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07306
Badshahi Falooda $3.95
A refreshing milk drink flavored with rose syrup served with rice vermicelli, basil seeds and a scoop of vanilla ice cream
Pista Kulfi With Falooda $5.50
Home style pistachio flavored Indian ice-cream served with rice vermicelli
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Neha Kulsh graduated from UC Berkeley, and she has written for Los Angeles Magazine and The Daily Californian. She is based in New York but hails from West Hollywood.